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“I dream of a house by the sea,” she whispered into the darkness, and pulled her blanket tighter around her to stop herself from shivering.
The whole house was quiet, an oppressive midnight quiet. The girl lay a while longer, staring up at the ceiling, wondering whether she was frightened enough to call out to her mother who lay behind the wall. And yet it had not been a nightmare, though she had awoken tangled in her sheets, body contorted. It was not worth risking the shadows' wrath to break the quiet, the girl told herself. She could imagine them, could practically see them, coiled in the distant corners of her room, in her closet, beneath her bed.
Without noticing it she drifted back into sleep.
She stood up in the large, empty room. Its walls were painted a pastel, tulip-pink, a young pale shade of color that cheered her. The bare wooden floor glowed warmly in the diffuse sunlight. There was no furniture but for a little white desk, just the right size for her, on which lay several sheets of paper and a box of new colored pencils. A window took up most of the wall across from her, and it looked out on the sea.
It was a warm sea, she knew. Its waves gently broke on the white, white sand with a susurration barely heard inside the house, their turquoise waters washing over the beach again and again. Giddy she ran down the familiar halls, through the corridor, to the left, out onto the veranda where a white lawn chair stood and down to the water. Inside the house were her parents, the girl knew, and they were thinking about how much they loved their daughter and the girl thought about how much she loved them as the clean salted water enveloped her feet.
The dream continued on and off for months. Sometimes, a week would go by without it, and the girl would grow quieter and her mother would start to worry that something was the matter with her. Then she would fall asleep and find herself again in that kind house, with the spring rooms and the turquoise sea and the loving sky, and then she would be all right.
She went to a small elementary school, and during class the girl would look out the window, thinking about the house by the sea. She did not usually do much of her homework, which caused the teacher – a nice lady with soft, curly hair that fell in ringlets down her back and was the envy of all her students – to finally, one day, detain her when all the others went out for recess.
“What seems to be the problem?” the teacher asked, her pale, fleshy hands resting on the edge of the girl's desk. She stared numbly at the hands. There was a gold ring on one of the fingers, which everybody knew, because everybody knew the teacher was married to a tall man that sometimes visited the class. He would talk quietly with the teacher in the corner, while the schoolboys made paper airplanes and tried to fly them to the teacher's desk, and they would sometimes giggle and kiss.
This was what the girl was thinking about. Then she recalled that she was in trouble, and tears welled up in her eyes. The teacher, for whom this was the first year teaching such young children, was always a little bit lost when they started crying. Which happened quite often. “Oh, now, come, come – I'm not angry with you, I'm just – oh, all right,” the teacher sighed, as the girl began to sob quite heartrendingly. “Go outside to play. Just make sure you do your spelling for tomorrow,” she called after the girl, who was already beyond the door, and the teacher sighed hopelessly.
That evening the girl did not get her spelling done for tomorrow. She spent most of it thinking about how nice it would be to be in the house by the sea, and was quick to go to her bedroom and shut her door and turn off the lights and hide deep, deep in her fleece blankets when her father told her it was time to go to bed. She did not fall asleep immediately, for her parents made rather a lot of noise moving about the kitchen below and talking, now loudly, now softly. Still, eventually they, too, retreated to their beds and the girl returned to her pink room, where a half-finished drawing lay on the table.
In class the next day she recalled again her dream. The girl was very good at recalling her dreams with perfect clarity, especially the one about the house. So when the teacher asked them where they would most like to go, the girl raised her hand. “Yes?” the teacher called on her.
“I would like to go and live in a house by the sea.”
“What country is the house in?”
The girl thought a minute. “It's in no country,” the girl explained as best she could. “It's just by the sea.”
“It must be in some country. All the land on the earth belongs to one country or another,” the teacher explained as best she could. A few of the older children in the classroom laughed at this young girl who thought there was still land that hadn't been claimed by explorers from one country or another.
“No,” the girl decided aloud. “Nobody owns the house. The sea is very blue where it is,” she continued, “and the water very warm, and the sand is very white. Like – like the sun is white.”
A few more children laughed this time, and the girl hunched her shoulders and looked down at her desk. She had said something wrong again, she supposed. She often did. That was why nobody sat at the desk right next to her. The other children of course sometimes said the wrong things, too, but she said them so often and was so strange about them that they could not abide even being seen with her. And they thought she was lazy, for she never had her homework done. And it did not even matter that she did well on spelling and had mastered the multiplication tables. She was to be avoided, and that was that.
After the others had said where they most wanted to go (and of course they all made sure to say which country it was in, even if some of them got a little bit mixed up and said that Bermuda was in India or the like), it was time for them to visit the school nurse. They got in line, following some pushing and shoving and general ruckus, with the girl ending up at the front. The rumor had quickly spread that they would be receiving vaccinations, and it was determined by common consensus that it should first be tested on the girl.
So she walked right behind the teacher, close enough to touch her beautiful autumn curls. She did so, very gently, because she wanted to see what they felt like, and they felt good and smooth sliding between her fingers. The teacher did not notice. Then, after walking miles and miles through the white-tiled corridors of the school building, the class arrived at a gray door.
They had all been at this gray door several times before, and all remembered it too well for their liking. Here they fell silent as the teacher firmly rapped it exactly three times. There was no sound for a minute but for the rhythmic stutterings of the heating system as they waited, still praying collectively for a last-minute miracle. Perhaps the nurse herself would turn out to be sick; perhaps she had been kidnapped, and they would all be released from vaccines for the day.
The door opened.
“Let's have you first! Aren't you brave, young lady?” the nurse sang out in a trembling soprano. She was a very tall, slim woman, the white of her uniform giving her skin an unpleasant cheeselike sallowness. She tried to compensate for this sallowness using copious amounts of rouge and lipstick, which only served to contrast further with her skin. She smiled, a smile just a little bit too crimson and crazed, at the girl who stood there impassively. Seeing that the girl was not about to enter of her own volition, the nurse took her by the hand and led her inside.
Behind them the door closed.
“Sit down on the examination table there, won't you be a dear?” the nurse said, still in that trilling voice, as she bustled about getting the various papers and forms in order. “Today you must have your physical exam, and you also must have your shot, to keep you from getting sick.” The nurse turned round to face the little girl, a needle in hand already.
“Take off your jacket, sweetie, I need to be able to reach your arm.”
The girl balked at this. She was quite attached to her jacket. Her teacher had already noticed that she never parted from it, even on exceptionally warm days. It was a dark pink jacket, with white buttons all down the front and a patch in the elbow where she had repaired it once. “No,” she finally whispered. She was a little bit frightened by the nurse.
“Oh, dear. It won't hurt at all, sweetie!” The nurse entered her well-rehearsed routine, one of cajoling and bribing with apple lollipops and threatening with detention by turn. The girl still adamantly refused to remove the offending garment. Finally the nurse sighed. “If you could just roll up your sleeve...”
The girl shook her head. “Would you do it for your teacher? I'm afraid you're making everybody wait on you,” the nurse said sweetly. “Would Teacher get mad at me if I didn't?” the girl whispered again, clearly horrified at the possibility of Teacher's involvement.
The nurse, sensing this weakness, pounced on the opportunity with a savageness not unmatched by that of an African lioness. “Yes, my dear, I'm afraid so. Teacher will be quite upset with you if you don't take off your jacket for me.”
Finally, the girl took her jacket off.
The other schoolchildren, as it turned out, had in fact been saved from the vaccines by the miracle of the girl. The nurse had come out of the room with her broad smile gone, replaced by a creased forehead and downturned mouth. She hurriedly communicated something to the Teacher, who followed her into the examination room and came back out also with a creased forehead and downturned mouth.
The older children thought they could hear quiet crying coming from the room, and began to get shifty. The whole class was sent back to their room by the Teacher; then she went to get the principal, who followed them into the examination room and came out looking very somber indeed.
“How long do you think -” he asked Teacher, who was now also on the verge of tears. “I don't know,” she told him, helplessly. Her large hands fluttered, tugging at her curls, then at the hem of her shirt. “She hasn't been doing her homework for a while. She never spoke much, but then – but then -”
Her voice grew strained and she broke off. The nurse, who had better maintained her composure, was the first to speak. “We have some calls to make, I think. I'm afraid – she won't be going back home tonight.”
The teacher began to speak again. “I've met her father before. She's not lying, is she? He was such a nice man, such a respectable job, such -” Then she began to cry, and hurried off to the lady's room.
“She couldn't have lied?” the principal asked the nurse, searchingly. But then, he'd seen the girl himself. “No,” she said simply. “I will go make the calls.”
The girl settled into her bed again. It was not quite as comfortable as the one at home. It squeaked a little bit, metallic hinges rubbing against each other as her weight lay into them, in concert with the other rustlings from countless children in the large dormitory. It had been a strange day, and she had seen her parents twice, but she was not sure she would see them again.
However, the girl was not too worried about it for now. She could feel from the heaviness in her head that she would soon be asleep, and she also knew that she would not have new bruises tomorrow.
And tonight, she would return to the house by the sea, where the rooms were spring-colored and the sand was very white and the water was very turquoise and very warm.